any of those who don’t spend much time thinking about conventions can only call one image to mind when they think of cosplay: women posing in revealing costumes, bearing resemblance to some sort of fictional character.
That isn’t surprising. Tens of thousand of people dress up to attend conventions annually, and while respectful photos of cosplayers are welcome, many photographers choose to document only the most visually appealing characters, and that means mostly women.
Former Paly student James Ouyang, a three-year cosplayer, says the cosplay that people see online isn’t totally representative. “People usually like cosplays the better looking the cosplayer is,” Ouyang said. “Also, female characters tend to look better than male ones in media.”
Senior and 10-year cosplayer Maggie Ainsworth-Darnell agrees. “They usually only show the female [cosplayers],” Ainsworth-Darnell said. “They’re kind of oversexualized, and they’re what’s shown when you think of cosplay.”
Female cosplayers’ options are limited: many female comic book characters dress in variations of unrealistically tight and conveniently revealing outfits. Women’s battle armor in video games and movies often seems like it would be wonderfully protective, so long as the characters value none of their internal organs.
Pressure to appear exactly as the character does can also negatively impact the cosplayer.
“I think the appearance of an animated character doesn’t always translate well to real life,which can leave cosplayers worrying they don’t look like the character enough.”
This pressure puts female cosplayers in the impossible position of either wearing an accurate but revealing costume and risk potential verbal and physical harassment, or modifying an outfit to the point where the cosplayer feels comfortable but then gets berated for the costume’s inaccuracies.
While judgement befalls all cosplayers, Ainsworth-Darnell says it’s often aimed at female cosplayers who may have modified an outfit due to personal comfort.
“Women’s cosplay, in the anime world and superhero world and stuff like that are all hypersexualized… women [are] treated as the symbol of cosplay,” Ainsworth-Darnell said. “But at the same time, if they don’t match it correctly, they get shamed for it or harassed for it.”
Do female cosplayers get harassed in costume? “Yes,” Ouyang said. “It’s not too big of an issue, but it definitely still happens.” However, Ainsworth-Darnell’s experiences tell a stronger story. “ I have had multiple guys try and hit on me, offered me alcohol which I wasn’t sure was completely just alcohol,” Ainsworth-Darnell said. “It has been because of my more revealing or adult-looking cosplays. I have gotten a lot of bad attention, a lot of pics that are trying to sexualize me, even when I was a child.”
Stories such as Ainsworth-Darnell’s are hardly uncommon. It’s embedded in the convention culture, because it’s difficult to hold a harasser accountable. If a Spider-Man says something inappropriate, it’s hard to point out to officials which of the seven hundred Spider-Men present at a convention is the culprit.
“Yeah, there can be creeps in that world,” Ainsworth-Darnell said, “But you kind of have to grow up with it, because that’s how things are, even though they shouldn’t be like that and it kind of sucks.”
Does this harassment have to do with the costumes themselves? Yes, and it’s a problem. Calling it the cosplayer’s fault, however, is unfair. Cosplay is a delightful and harmless hobby, and as in life, women should be able to wear whatever they want without fear.
“It shouldn’t be a problem for women to be afraid to do what they love because there’s a character that has to be more revealing because that’s how the media has always written that character,” Ainsworth-Darnell said. “Because men sexualize them and then when men see the sexualized cosplay, they think that’s consent. That’s not okay.”
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, the harassment of female cosplayers is more prevalent an issue than ever. However, in recent years we’ve seen positive movement: Conventions boast signs reading “Cosplay is not consent” and the number of cases of reported harassment has been decreasing.
Cosplay is an incredible hobby and profession, and cosplayers will tell you there are few things as delightful about working for months on a costume and then at last being able to parade around the convention floor, both on display and anonymous.